By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz
First published on July 25, 2014, Friday
It was Malam 20 Ramadan, on which by the provisions of an 1898 Agreement, the Yamtuan and the Ruling Chiefs host buka puasa and terawih prayers in their Istana and Balais respectively. The announcer was late in informing guests that a cannon would be fired to mark maghrib: the blast had already caused some guests to jump. In the Balairong Seri, the tazkirah reminded us of the special rewards that God makes available for believers in the holy month, and the melodies of the guest imam from Yemen were particularly soothing.
After the formal end of the evening, some relatives stayed late. Children chased each other around the lobby and adults talked business or raved on about the tempoyak. Suddenly, Yah Rudy looked up from his phone and interjected: “a Malaysia Airlines plane has crashed in Ukraine”.
“What’s your source?”, I immediately asked, thinking it must be a hoax.
Soon, everyone’s phones started buzzing. As with all disasters that have a national or global impact – 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, MH370 – everyone will remember where they were at the time. “Malaysia is a victim of geopolitical turmoil that is happening in that area,” said our Prime Minister some hours later. Obama was already having a go at Putin before this, but even his steely language was to be outdone by the Australians. The Netherlands showed initial restraint but then went on the offensive against Russia, too. British Prime Minister David Cameron also ratcheted up the verbal attack, calling on other European countries to impose greater sanctions on Russia. Malaysia, on the other hand, was resolutely neutral from the beginning: a full independent investigation must be completed before blame is ascribed to anyone.
Rifling through readers’ comments on at least a dozen different websites, it was interesting to see how citizens responded to the stances of their leaders: in the West plenty equated the quick judgement against Russia as proof of a conspiracy, whereas at home some criticised Datuk Seri Najib for failing to join international condemnation of Putin.
As I write this however, our Prime Minister is receiving much praise – including from opposition politicians – for going down the route of quiet diplomacy: the bodies are en route to the grieving families and we obtained the (orange) black boxes, subsequently forwarded to the UK for analysis. The handover ceremony had an air of officialdom about it: the rebels calling themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic have now received more recognition than the so-called Islamic State (of Iraq and the Levant) – but this is surely a small price to pay for the opportunity to provide closure for the victims’ kin.
So far, any shred of evidence has been shrouded by scepticism and doubt: ascertaining anything approximating the truth is impossible in such a politicised environment, as existing biases make people to want to believe a particular set of accusations. For every theory invoking the deleted tweet, the alleged conversation amongst rebels and the photo of the Buk missile system, there are counter-theories – and more. In this age of technological wizardry, credence or doubt are easily fuelled by claiming that data has been manipulated. That is why on-the-ground access by investigators trusted by the international community is vital. Malaysia’s stance sounds logical and reasonable, and the very erudite Russian Ambassador to Malaysia has expressed gratitude for it. Yet, while for us, resolving the specific incident of the plane is the top priority, some of our friends in the West have been waiting for an opportunity to punish Putin for his alleged role in escalating the conflict. (Some months ago I was a guest of the Russian Embassy at a concert to celebrate their Constitution Day: as Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was being performed a big portrait of the Russian President appeared in the background, and some ambassadors failed to suppress sniggers.) The context counts. And so the geopolitical fisticuffs will continue and as various investigations claim to reach conclusions, Malaysia may eventually be forced to take sides, too.
It is often said of leaders who struggle at home that an international incident can be a boon: history shows us how wars have been started to divert attention from domestic problems. I’m not suggesting that any leader wanted 298 innocent people to die, but already the various decisions being made by world leaders in the aftermath of our national tragedy are being seen as a turning point for Russia. For Malaysians, however, the tragedy has given us a glimpse into a kind of leadership infrequently seen – purposeful, effective and level-headed in the face of provocation – attributes that old accounts suggest was once the norm. And now that we have seen it, we will yearn for more of it.